Talking about Trees in “Dark Times”. Re-Reading Brecht and Rich

One more war makes all the difference, yet, I am not going to write about war or Ukraine or Russia or how many more wars there are. I am still going to write about trees. How can I? How can I talk about trees when the world is burning, when bombs are falling on people, when thousands are forced to flee their homes and try to get where you are, sitting in safety, writing about trees?

What times are these, when
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
Because it entails a silence about so many misdeeds!

Quoting Brecht has become a cliché and still, it is the reference that came to my head immediately when Russia invaded Ukraine and war came so painfully close to my home. I am saying “I” and “my”, because I do not possess and I don’t want to assume the ability to universalize my thoughts. But I do want to connect them to trees and, yes, that means I am reassuring myself what I am doing, writing about trees “in dark times”. This is not an analysis or an interpretation, this is me finding my way to trees through texts, this is what I do, this is the only way I know how.

I don’t want this to be another postcard or a meme with an inspirational quote on it. But I also don’t want this to be an academic text either. This is personal and so is my work. So I invite you to read with me.

To those born after

by Bertolt Brecht (1939)

Truly, I live in dark times!

A trusting word is folly. A smooth brow
A sign of insensitivity. The man who laughs
Has simply not yet heard
The terrifying news

What times are these, when
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
Because it entails a silence about so many misdeeds!
That man calmly crossing the street
Is he not beyond the reach of his friends
Who are in need?

It is true: I still earn a living
But believe me: that is just good fortune. Nothing
That I do gives me the right to eat my fill.
By chance I am spared. (If my luck runs out
I am lost.)

They say to me: eat and drink! Be glad that you have the means!
But how can I eat and drink when
It is from the starving that I wrest my food and
My glass of water is snatched from the thirsty
Yet I do eat and I drink.

I would like to be wise
In ancient books it says what it means to be wise:
To hold yourself above the strife of the wolrd and to live out
That brief compass without fear
And to make your way without violence
To repay evil with good
Not to fulfil your desires, but to forget them
Such things are accounted wise.
But all of this I cannot do:
Truly I live in dark times!

This is the first of three parts of a poem in which the tree verse is only a tiny part in a much larger attempt to address “those born after”. The German “Nachgeborenen” is a peculiar word that is not really in use (at least to my knowledge) but immediately produces a temporal relationship which you cannot escape. For this first part to be set in the present of the lyrical I generates some friction with the title addressing future beings. It creates a feeling of witnessing someone experiencing the very things they talk about, thus, a feeling of immediacy that has the potential to hurt. And it should. While the second part reflects on the lyrical I’s own involvement in “the dark times” in the (injust) fight for justice and the third ends in a plea to look with forbearance (Nachsicht) on those who succumbed to meanness and hatred in the very attempt “to prepare the land for friendliness”, this first part could as well say “you” where it says “I”. At least, that is what it sounds like to me.

I have read this poem often and wondered about it – there are answers to it and myriads of interpretations – because it neither excuses nor accuses itself or its reader of ignorance, but it complicates the relationship between presence and past by pulling the latter so much closer.

I don’t live in dark times, I want to reply – the sun is shining, the buds on the branches of the tree in front of my window are almost bursting into leaf and bloom, I am warm and sheltered, my family and I are healthy and can expect help should we not be – but I live in dark times, because people around me are dying of a disease that we are close to forgetting, the leafs on the trees are too early because of a warming climate and the warmth I enjoy in my home and my office comes from fossil fuels that finance a war, right now (and they have financed war and injustice for too long) – “Yet I do eat and drink” and I enjoy sunshine and birthday cake and playing with my kid. 

It feels presumptuous to even compare “my” dark times to Brecht’s or, for that matter, to those who have to flee, who starve, who don’t know what tomorrow look like. So, am I the “man calmly crossing the street”? Probably, but so is the I in this poem. Again, there is no excuse, no accusation, but many question marks. So what about the conversation about trees? 

Sure, I am practiced enough in what I do, to connect to the thread that I have laid out in the last paragraph – the tree buds, the gas, global heating – to a by now equally familiar argument, that it would be just as criminal NOT to talk about trees. Look at what is happening to them – where the forests aren’t outright burning, trees are in peril of pests and drought, dangers with which they would be able to deal, would we not continue to burn fossilized beings on an almost unimaginable scale. But how on earth can you even make such an argument? Can you really weigh humans against trees? I’m not going into the moral argument here. I am not a deep ecologist. Instead, I not only “eat and I drink”, I heat my home and I enjoy the pleasures of fossil fuelled life. So why talk about trees if that makes you look even worse? Is it a case of “virtue signalling” (a problematic concept in itself), that is, plain hypocrisy – me filling my blog with thoughts about difficulty that is virtually non-existent? While I hope not, I am not sure. And I shouldn’t be. 

Where I look for answers, or more precisely, for a language to even approximate the feelings of loss and lostness and their blatant a-synchronicity with my daily life, is literature. Poems especially, because they intensify the contradictions without necessarily offering an escape. Sure, there is escapist reading (and I want to stress that I do think that this is an absolutely legitimate form of engaging with text and not with the world for a while), but this is not ,I think, what “a conversation about trees” means. Again, it’s tempting and almost easy, now, to dwell on the “almost” in “almost a crime”, in order to defend conversations about trees. They don’t need defending, though. Because it’s not about the conversations or about the trees. It’s about the ways in which we judge them, conversations and trees and the people clinging to both.

So don’t be mean to people talking about trees, even now? Or don’t stop talking about trees, because they are still in peril? And it’s all connected? I really don’t know which of these things I want to suggest or ask or get on with. All of them, none of them. I don’t know.

To have you listen at all

If talking about trees means you are turning away from the world of humans and human suffering, it would, indeed, be hurtful. There are many claims that most people’s new found (or old) fondness of trees is nothing but puppy love. A caring for nonhumans that masks the carelessness with which we treat other humans. Gerbrand Bakker, for example, accuses forester Peter Wohlleben of fostering just this kind of infatuation and, thus, of diverting attention from the historic and present plight of humans by confusing them with trees. To me, this sounds a lot like what Michael Rothberg calls “competing memory” (2009). That is, the fight for a place in “collective memory” as if it were a case of “real-estate-development” with space for only one kind of attention, only one line of remembrance and, taking it further, only one species deserving of care. 

Put like this, it sounds even more ridiculous to me and, as Leila Essa has shown in her wonderful essay, this kind of thinking leads to even more exclusion (even where it means well). If we treat attention and memory, both forms of care, like scarce resources, we are engaging in a hypocrisy that is even worse than caring for trees instead of humans: after all, our collective track record of saving scarce resources is, to put it mildly, not great. Claiming that there is not enough attention or capacity to remember seems, at least in tendency, like a very convenient excuse.

Yet, it happens. You can turn to trees to turn away from humans. Sometimes you must, but sometimes that hurts trees as much as it neglects humans. In a sort of Midas-effect, everything we turn our attention to, turns to metaphor and symbol, if not to gold as in the myth of king Midas’s eternal punishment. There we go – that makes talking about trees even worse and poetry…no! Because these kinds of conversations, the poetic type that is, know how to grow metaphorical language into something that is both real and not, both about trees and about humans, both eating and not ignoring the hunger of others. 

What Kind of Times are These

by Adrienne Rich (1991)

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.

The first time I read it, it seemed to me, Adrienne Rich was providing me with an optimistic call for attention to trees. We do have to talk about trees! People will listen, when we talk about trees! She (or the lyrical I) clearly loves them and the mushrooms with whom the trees grow, as did Brecht by the way. But this is not a poem about the love for trees. At least I am not sure it is (only) about that. There is so much silence entailed in that poem, it almost bursts at the seams. The sadness of that last stanza…”why do I tell you/ anything?” Because you might not listen to me, if I were talking about anything else. Because maybe there is a kernel of truth to the suspicion that we talk about trees to avoid other conversations. 

We can’t. A conversation about trees does, indeed, “entail a silence about so many misdeeds!” But it is getting harder to look past this fact. The silence might be all that is left if we do. So, “to have you listen at all, it’s necessary/ to talk about trees.” This need not be a purely sad statement. If trees retain the ability to make people listen that is a good thing. I am convinced of it. So turning to trees might mean turning away for a moment – but not for longer. The challenge lies in being happy (tree buds, spring!) and aware (global warming, war), in not letting the one outshine the other. We need to the silence to care for the unheard, one might say, if that didn’t sound too much like another damn inspirational quote. So, with the trees, I am heartbroken, yet, I try not to turn away for too long. They can’t and so can’t many humans right now.

This has no conclusion.

——

Brecht’s poem: To those born after, An die Nachgeborenen first published in Svendborger Gedichte (1939) in: Gesammelte Werke, vol. 4, pp. 722-25 (1967), here: The Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht, translated and edited by Tom Kuhn and David Constantine. W.W. Norton 2019, pp. 734-736. Another translation as well as the German original in full can be found here.

Adrienne Rich, “What Kind of Times are These” from Collected Poems: 1950-2012, W.W. Norton 2018, p. 291. (The Dark Fields of the Republic 1991-1992).

Cite this article as: Solvejg Nitzke, "Talking about Trees in “Dark Times”. Re-Reading Brecht and Rich," in Ecological Imaginaries, 11/03/2022, https://ecologies.hypotheses.org/279.

Sitting on/like a Tree (Part II)

(To read part one, go to: Sitting like/on a Tree (Part I))

The Baron in the Trees 

Rory is in good company, many fictional and non-fictional humans seek refuge on and under trees. It is a special kind of refuge, though. Tree-sitters not necessarily seek shelter from rain and cold, persecution or outside threads, but one that creates space to think and to learn. Even if the interaction between the human who escapes an all-too human world to learn, study and think, and the tree isn’t reciprocal at first glance, I insist that trees cooperate in the endeavor. The question is: how and to what end? Can they “do” more than providing the support Rory Gilmore values so much? Isn’t it painfully obvious that trees are the victims of human ratio? Would they want to assist in actions that help wiping out even more of them?

Il Barone Rampante by Italo Calvino (Cover of the 1957 edition)

One of Rory Gilmore’s literary siblings, Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, the protagonist of Italo Calvino’s novel Baron in the Tree (Il Barone Rampante, 1957), radicalizes her notion of the study tree. Instead of sitting under the tree, that is, positioned firmly on the ground, Cosimo chooses the crowns of trees to position himself and think. While Rory sits on tree roots, shaded by the branches and leaves and thus not only remains visible, but does not leave the domain of humans, Cosimo moves a story up. He does so literally, by moving into the tree-tops and he does so figuratively by removing himself from the company and expectations of his family. He not only adds a layer to a story, he makes it worth telling a story at all. Climbing a tree and refusing to come down is indeed a radicalization in comparison to Rory’s claim to her study tree. In fact, Cosimo begins a new kind of thinking through his arboreal lifestyle.

One Story Up

What’s especially striking about Cosimo (and further connects him to Rory) is that he doesn’t really change for the trees. There is no planning, no thinking ahead or adjusting to tree life. Maybe because he is a teenager and uses his (last) opportunity to refuse the path that was chosen for him. 

Shortly afterward, through the windows, we saw him climbing up the holm oak. He was dressed and coiffed with great propriety, as our father wanted him to come to the table, though he was only twelve: hair powdered and ponytail tied with a ribbon, three-cornered hat, lace tie, green tailcoat, tight mauve trousers, sword, and long white leather gaiters that came to midthigh, the only concession to a way of dressing more suited to our country life. (I, being only eight, was exempted from the powder in my hair, except on gala occasions, and from the sword, which, however, I would have liked to carry.) So he climbed up into the gnarled tree, arms and legs moving through the branches with the assurance and speed gained from the long practice we’d done together.

Calvino, Italo (2019). The Baron in the Trees (Vintage Classics) . Random House. Kindle-Version.

Cosimo leaves the dinner table in a rebellious act (he disobeys his Father’s orders to eat his snails). Running off and climbing a tree might not be too outrageous for a teenager, even though slamming a door might be the more familiar option – but his refusal to come down that makes him different. Cosimo remains in a strange stage between the cultivated and the wild. He is obviously able to climb and stay in the trees, but he still bears the signs of a gentleman. The clothes – though ragged at later points – his tastes and communication style allow him to literally move between the worlds. He corresponds with Enlightenment scholars, designs his own treatises, converses about social contracts and communitarian ways of life (when he meets a group of refugees also living in trees) and, later on, manages his estate. He also joins a group of outlaws (never leaving his trees) and only towards the end of his life does he figure out that he can live more “comfortably” and has cushions and good food brought up to him. Although he succeeds at his goal to never set foot on the ground, he lives a life that is neither that of a hermit nor that of someone who is part of a (human) community. Even his community with the trees – and this is where this novel becomes important to my research – remains somewhat estranged. 

Vantage Point

Cosimos middle ground – not quite on the ground but also not quite above it all – allows him and the reader through him to take a different look at an important historical period. His position is in a way the embodied version of that of the Enlightenment scholars he corresponds with (and becomes part of). Not the ‘’objective’ Appolo’s Gaze (Denis Cosgrove) of someone looking down on earth from space, but a partially connected mid-distance that allows some participation. In the words of the narrator, Cosimo’s brother, the world becomes “an entertainment” to Cosimo:

COSIMO WAS IN the oak. The branches were waving, high bridges over the earth. A light wind was blowing; it was sunny. The sun shone among the leaves, and to see Cosimo we had to shield our eyes with our hands. Cosimo looked at the world from the tree: everything was different seen from up there, and that was already an entertainment. The avenue had a completely different prospect, as did the flower beds, the hydrangeas, the camellias, the small iron table where one could have coffee in the garden. Farther on, the foliage thinned out and the vegetable garden sloped down in small terraced fields supported by stone walls; the low hill was dark with olive groves, and behind, the built-up area of Ombrosa raised its roofs of faded brick and slate, and ships’ flags peeked out from the port below. In the background the sea extended, high on the horizon, and a slow sailboat passed by.

Calvino, Italo (2019). The Baron in the Trees (Vintage Classics) . Random House. Kindle-Version.

That is not least the vantage point of someone narrating the world or, like Cosimo, becoming the means or medium through which to narrate the world one is part of. Italo Calvino wouldn’t be Italo Calvino wouldn’t the Baron in the Trees be a meta-fictional text. But it’s not Cosimo who narrates or writes the world around, or rather, below him. It’s his brother who visits him in the trees but is mostly confined to imagining what it must be like to live like him. There is no authenticity-claim to his narrative. All the glory of being directly connected to the tree belongs to Cosimo. And yet, it is the narrator who thinks through trees as he does through his brother. 

Tree Texts

Meta fictionality – that is, the ways in which fictional texts design or envision how fictional texts work – and tree thinking combine to create a strangely beautiful set in this novel. It is a text about writing and even though the trees do not talk or move or do any of the exciting things they do in Richard Power’s overstory (which will feature in one of the next posts) or in Suzanne Simard’s Wood Wide Web, they do play a crucial role. With Cosimo withering away (rather spectacularly, but I don’t want to spoil the whole novel for you) the trees seem unable to resist the rationalized spirit of the 19th century. Himself an old man by now, the narrator reflects on the disappearance of the trees and, once again, bears witness to an almost magical act:

Every so often as I write I break off and go to the window. The sky is empty, and to us old people of Ombrosa, habituated to living under those green domes, it hurts the eyes to look at it. One would say that the trees didn’t bear up after my brother left, or that men were seized by the fury of the ax. […] That ornamentation of branches and leaves, forks, lobes, feathers, minute and without end, and the sky appearing only in irregular flashes and cutouts, maybe existed only because my brother passed there with the light step of a long-tailed tit, was an embroidery, made on nothing, that resembles this thread of ink, as I’ve let it run for pages and pages, full of erasures, of references, of nervous blots, of stains, of gaps, that at times crumbles into large pale grains, at times thickens into tiny marks resembling dotlike seeds, now twists on itself, now forks, now links knots of sentences with edges of leaves or clouds, and then stumbles, and then resumes twisting, and runs and runs and unrolls and wraps a last senseless cluster of words ideas dreams and is finished.

Calvino, Italo (2019). The Baron in the Trees (Vintage Classics) . Random House. Kindle-Version.

There is much to say about Calvino’s diligence in transforming the historical environmental transformation of Northern Italy (Giulia Pacini did it brilliantly in her article on the Arboreal and Historical Perspectives of the novel) and equally much to say about the alignment of light metaphors and Enlightenment with deforestation. The magical act I am interested in conclusion of this post, is that of trees into text. There are no physical trees in the biological sense of the word. Yet the empty sky is full of the memory of trees which transform very subtly into the blotched, smeared marks the narrator – turns out he is a writer – left in his notebook. While they become letters on a sheet of paper (ironically, a tree product) the trees could be mistaken as mere symbols. But they are, the narrative suggests, so much more. The uninterrupted gaze from the empty sky onto the written pages suggests a metonymical relationship. That is, the trees that disappeared on the surface (of the earth) reappear on the pages of the book. Seems like a sad replacement? Yes. But in a way it makes them more accessible, because we – such “Enlightened” people – are much more prone to notice the letters than the actual trees.

Tree Alphabet

It might be difficult to find hope in this ending. If we turn all wood into paper, all trees into letters, what would be left? However, this is the wrong question. Artist Katie Holten turns the tables once more and asks ‘Where can we go from here’? 

The tree alphabets she creates put the trees back into the cities. They are not to be sat on, but they not only show what’s missing they suggest it could grow back – we could help give the trees more room to grow. If only to lean against them and think…

I’ll stop here and begin anew when I take up Katie Holten’s cue and think some more About Trees. There will be more sitting and there will be (more) communication with and by the trees.

I want to thank everyone at today’s @dehypotheses “Bloggen experimentell” workshop for encouraging me to take time to write and tell you more about trees. It was a wonderful occasion – the not-often visible side of academia where we push each other in “friendly scholarship”. Thanks everyone! 

Cite this article as: Solvejg Nitzke, "Sitting on/like a Tree (Part II)," in Ecological Imaginaries, 12/07/2021, https://ecologies.hypotheses.org/107.